BioShock Infinite, the third installment in what is now the BioShock series, sees the return of Ken Levine to the helm. Along with one or two others, Levine is arguably the closest thing the video games industry has to an auteur. With metascores of 96 on both PC and Xbox 360, BioShock is held up as the pinnacle of the current gen, and so it was inevitable, given Levine's return, that expectations for Infinite would be sky high. It's fitting, then, that a city in the sky is the backdrop for the game's snaking narrative. Gizmag took a rocket ship to Columbia to find out if BioShock Infinite could possibly live up to the highest of expectations.
Though you spend perhaps 10 to 15 hours in the skin of protagonist Booker DeWitt, it's the floating city of Columbia that receives top billing. It's in polar opposition to Bioshock's underwater city in terms of place, and yet familiarity oozes through the cobblestones of Columbia's streets. The city is not a single mass, but a minor archipelago of islands, greater and lesser, down to individual shops that have docking times rather than opening hours. It's a cunning device on the part of Infinite's creators, allowing the city to open up to the player in its own time much as Rapture did (but with much less need to backtrack).
Irrational Games has such faith in its world-building that it leaves you alone for the first hour or two to simply explore its rich and vivid high streets and back allies. Conceived as a sort of floating World's Fair, it's clear from the beginning that Columbia's gilded exterior hides a rotten core. By 1912, when the game is set, Columbia, built as an embodiment of U.S. exceptionalism, has seceded from the union and is run by Father Comstock, a fundamentalist zealot who is as worshipped as he is revered by the city's white ruling class for the protection he offers from the common folk, the Vox Populi. Columbia is no less rotten than Rapture, but this time the city invites you into its limits before the inevitable decay has taken hold.
The path before you is unmistakably linear, but there are forking cul-de-sacs to explore. Even before the first shot is fired, Columbia rewards you for exploring. The game's production values exude quality, and this is as evident in the soundtrack as it is the extraordinary visuals. Familiar 1980s pop songs undergo old-time country and male-voice quartet reworkings, each flawlessly arranged and performed. It's a credit to Irrational that these are woven perfectly into Infinite's aesthetic that you don't question the anachronism until the narrative prods you to. But those that fail to explore will miss many such details and set pieces.
There are more dubious rewards for exploration, too. Inexplicably abandoned coins positively litter the nooks, crannies and litter bins of Columbia, and even remotely cautious gamers will find themselves obsessively checking every corner, especially on the first play through when there is uncertainty as to what lies ahead. Columbia's currency is the silver eagle, which can be used at vending machines to upgrade both guns and vigors, Infinite's answer to BioShock's plasmids, which are effectively magic spells. The guns and vigors themselves are usually found rather than bought. As the game unfolds one can't help wish that the game offered fewer, larger cash rewards in more likely places: cash registers, safes and bank vaults, so that gamers were rewarded for rationale rather than endless systematic searching. It's a pity that you'll spend so much of a beautiful game looking downwards into murky corners, mashing the open/collect button.
Infinite has also been criticized for its ultra-violence. At the game's first encounter, DeWitt seizes a hand-held grappling hook. Its main use is to speedily navigate the city's elevated skylines, allowing the player to ambush enemies from above, and leap out of the fray when death is imminent. But the hook doubles as a gruesome melee weapon that dispatches enemies in extremely bloody fashion. Though not for the squeamish, the violence is in keeping with Infinite's mature themes.
As dark as Columbia's secrets are those of DeWitt himself. If there are no skeletons in his closet, it's only because he needs the room for his surplus demons: a Himalayan mountain of guilt following his role in the Wounded Knee Massacre, followed by disgrace during his time with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. His past has resulted in alcoholism, bankruptcy (or as near to it as makes no difference) and desperation. Cartoonish juvenile violence alongside such themes would surely have been more incongruous still.
The game's opening hints that DeWitt's troubled past is somehow bound up with the events to unfold, but at the outset all we know is that he must find Elizabeth, who becomes DeWitt's AI-controlled companion for much of the game. Players will be relieved by the pop-up message informing them that Elizabeth needs no looking after during battle, and in fact turns out to be the model companion NPC. Elizabeth picks locks and deciphers codes for the player, as well as tossing him much-needed money, health and Salt, the last of which recharges the players vigors (being the mana to his magic as it were). As the game progresses, so Elizabeth's powers, and her relationship to Columbia itself, are revealed, driving the story while unlocking game mechanics, increasing the strategies available to the play when playing. But Elizabeth is also the heart of Infinite's story. She is the reason we care, and, ultimately, the reason we see the game through to the end.
But, as with the BioShock games before it, the actual combat which forms the guts of the gameplay is something of a letdown. Failing to put any fun into perfunctory, gameplay often descends into chaotic running and gunning (except for running read skyline hijinks). Upon entering a new area, Infinite seems to invite the player to strategize on the hoof, perhaps deploying a few well-chosen vigors (which can also be laid as traps). By far my favorite of these is Murder of Crows, a deployable flock that distracts and damages enemies and which, when upgraded, causes felled enemies to become crow-traps themselves. Collective nouns are seldom so literal. But more often than not enemies will turn on the player without prompt or provocation, forcing the player to, at best, hastily cast a few vigors before switching to the weapon of choice and shooting at whichever enemy is nearest.
Just as I did with the original, playing through Infinite I found myself fantasizing about the BioShocks that could have been: Games with the same polished environments to explore, the same political (arguably satirical) underpinnings, but without that lynchpin of first-person games, the phallic appendage perpetually thrusting from the bottom of the screen: the gun. I imagine a BioShock with a player armed with spells alone, where each skirmish must be approached as a puzzle to be solved. I even imagine a BioShock with no combat at all, but with conversation trees and cryptic puzzles instead. You can't fault Irrational Games for commercial realism (the game I imagine wouldn't sell nearly so well) but one can justifiably wish that, if we are to have the gunplay, that it caters to a greater variety of play styles. Infinite's fights are not short of boss battles, but none are so gripping as the heartbreaking encounters with the Big Daddies of Rapture.
And yet the combat is fun enough, and the campaign short enough, that it ultimately doesn't spoil what is a superb piece of craftsmanship. Fighting, though central, plays second fiddle to exploring Columbia, and to the game's narrative. Levine has woven an intricate tale, and though the final twist is less surprising than some of those along the way, the roller coaster last act will keep you glued to your thumbsticks, and itching to return to both Colombia and Rapture, to consider these cities anew in light of Infinite's revelations.
BioShock Infinite is available now for PC (version tested), Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. A Mac release is expected in the coming months.